After spending more than 21 minutes of the first half on the field against New Mexico’s triple option attack on Friday night, there’s no doubt the Sun Devils’ defense has had plenty of practice. Heading into week one of its Pac-12 slate, that’s probably a good thing for ASU, as the Sun Devils will take on a potential offensive juggernaut in the University of Southern California Trojans.
Through three games this season, the Trojans rank No. 12 in the nation in total offense at 557.7 yards per game and No. 11 in the country in scoring offense at an average of 48.3 points per game.
Though power conference teams’ statistics often appear inflated at the beginning of the season due to weak out of conference schedules, the Trojans’ offense passes the eye test on film and put up 31 points without turning the ball over against a tough Stanford defense on Saturday.
The Trojans have one of the deepest arsenals of skill position players in the country, and for the third straight week, ASU will scheme against an opponent that often features as many as three different ball carriers over the course of a game.
However, this week’s defensive approach is different, because the Sun Devils will not contend with a triple-option attack in which it’s any defender’s guess as to which potential ball carrier will end up with the football. At his Monday press conference, head coach Todd Graham expressed a sense of relief at finally facing a division opponent, even though the Pac-12 South figures to become one of the most tightly contested races in college football.
“Man, this is one of those kind of games that you love this week,” Graham said. “I feel good about where we are defensively. I think that's been difficult, obviously, playing against that style, and so ready to get back to -- but Pac-12 is not no -- it's pretty challenging.”
Instead of putting a handful of backs on the field all at once as ASU’s past opponents do, the Trojans’ more conventional pro-style attack allows USC to rotate feature backs, and the Trojans don’t lose much from a skill and talent standpoint as they work down the depth chart to keep backs fresh.
Redshirt senior Tre Madden, junior Justin Davis, and freshman Ronald Jones II are all averaging more than 7.0 yards per carry this season, which means ASU will once again have to contend with a team that thrives when it rushes the football.
Even with the gaudy stats, Graham indicated he would rather face a team like USC compared to Cal Poly or New Mexico because it allows ASU to revert back to running its defensive scheme in a more traditional manner.
“It's just different,” Graham said of the triple option offense. “It's a completely different brand, so we've got to really do a good job in our practice preparation, kind of getting out of that mode and back into our regular mode. I don't like doing that for two weeks because I think it's -- I'd rather be doing what we do.”
After playing on Friday night, the Sun Devils have one additional day of preparation this week compared to the Trojans who suffered their first loss to Stanford on Saturday, and also have the benefit of playing at home for the third straight week. ASU is 18-4 at Sun Devil Stadium under Todd Graham, including a 62-41 victory the last time the teams met in Tempe.
Redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler started that game for the Trojans, and this Saturday, he will start against the Sun Devils for the third consecutive season. Though Kessler had a two-interception performance in the loss at Sun Devil Stadium two years ago, the veteran leader has developed into one of the nation’s best decision-makers under center, and drew high praise from Graham during Monday’s press conference.
“He (Kessler) does a great job of managing the offense and just distributing the ball, and he can make all the throws, so he's a very good quarterback,” Graham said.
So far this season, Kessler is distributing the ball at an elite rate, completing 78.7 percent of his passes (70-for-89) for 922 yards, 10 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Kessler’s efficiency wasn’t exclusive to the Trojans’ first two games this season against Arkansas State and Idaho, as he managed a 25-for-32 performance against Stanford on Saturday.
Kessler ranks third in the country in passing efficiency behind Skyler Howard of West Virginia and Chad Kelly of Ole Miss, but ASU might actually be more inclined to let Kessler air it out when considering the alternative.
The Trojans own one of the best run-pass balances in the country, and ASU knows it needs to keep the USC offense off the field if it wants its defense to continue playing at a high level. When asked about Kessler, it didn’t take long for Graham to shift gears and highlight USC’s running backs, who may not be as well known as the quarterback, but clearly possess the same game-changing abilities.
“These are very, very explosive running backs, probably the best -- no doubt the best running backs that we'll play I think all year long,” Graham said. “Collectively when you take the group of four and five guys that they rotate in there, pretty explosive. The receiving corps is the same way.”
With an influx of talent at every offensive skill position, USC will provide the most difficult test to date for an ASU defense that has one week to readjust its style of preparation after back-to-back weeks practicing against the triple option.
Similarly, the ASU offense will face a challenge against a defense loaded with playmakers at the back end. Though USC doesn’t have the dynamic pass rushing force this season opponents have become accustomed to, redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici said the Trojans’ secondary is once again a force.
In six career college starts, Bercovici’s best came in a near-miraculous five-touchdown effort against the Trojans last year, and after torching the back end of the USC defense for more than 500 passing yards, Bercovici isn’t taking anything for granted this season.
“It's as simple as this: I grew up watching USC football, and they have athletes out there,” Bercovici said. “They've got some good safeties, they've got some good corners. They've got an outstanding outside linebacker, and they've got a solid defense, and something that as long as we study and prepare and focus on ourselves and do what we've got to do, we feel that we can run our offense, and that's what's going to be fun.”
An Unforgettable Win
Last year’s victory over the Trojans offered ASU its most thrilling finish to a game played in the Todd Graham era, and perhaps more importantly, helped keep ASU’s hopes of a Pac-12 South Division title alive at a critical juncture during the season.
The win was improbable on many levels, considering Bercovici was making just his second career start in place of an injured Taylor Kelly and ASU was coming off a 62-27 drubbing at the hands of the UCLA Bruins.
To complicate matters, the Sun Devils trailed by nine points with three minutes to play and needed a last-second desperation heave from Bercovici (A play later coined the “Jael Mary”) just to give ASU a chance.
Most fans will recall the iconic Hail Mary catch as the lasting memory from ASU’s first victory at the Coliseum since 1999, but at Monday’s press conference, Graham brought up another driving factor that keyed the Sun Devil win.
USC ran 95 plays and possessed the ball for more than 37 minutes of last year’s contest, and Graham said the resolve of ASU’s defense allowed the Sun Devils to give Bercovici one final chance to win the game.
“It wasn't just one play,” Graham said. “It was guys that played 104 snaps on defense, and when we had to stop them, we stopped them. I think we gave up a punt return for a touchdown, and you look at 104 plays, and I don't know, it was like 28 points or whatever it was. I mean, that's pretty phenomenal, and the effort that we gave. Just really, that's one of the most special games and teams that will always be up there at the top for me.”
Indeed, USC had a chance to ice the game by picking up a first down late in the fourth quarter, but a three-and-out forced by an exhausted defensive front set up the four-play touchdown drive that ultimately kept ASU in the Pac-12 South race even with a backup quarterback on the field.
To make matters more special for the Sun Devils, the backup quarterback was Bercovici, a Southern California native playing against some of the most highly touted recruits from his region, in a start he waited more than three seasons to earn.
When reflecting on last year’s win on Monday, Bercovici said the rivalry he and other Southern California natives on ASU’s roster share is alive and well. And though last year’s finish is a memory Bercovici can take with him the rest of his life, he’s more concerned about going 2-0 against the Trojans in his career as a starter.
“I don't think there's any more oomph to an SC rivalry than when you sign up to be a Sun Devil,” Bercovici said. “I think for anybody, especially Southern California kids that commit to ASU, you know that game is automatically circled on your schedule. But it's exciting. I think we've done well against the Trojans in the past, but that doesn't matter because this is a completely different year.”